by Larry James
NOTE:While Larry's ministry focus and the focus of this article are on Dallas, Texas, the concerns he articulates and the truths he calls us to embrace are real in every major city. Don't miss the key points: 1) God calls us to help those in need. 2) All of us will find ourselves both rich and poor. The real issues is how will we as churches, church leaders, and as Christians respond to the social and spiritual needs of our communities?
Data from Census 2000 reveals what we already knew: the decade of the 1990s witnessed remarkable economic growth for most Dallasites.
The other side of the story is not as happy. While welfare reform reduced the percentage of Dallas residents receiving public assistance, those living below the federal poverty level grew to 15% of the population. The number of Texas families living below this harsh line of need grew by 2% overall to a reported total of 632,676. In Dallas County the number of persons living below the poverty line increased by 17% over the decade. Only 2% of area low-income households received some form of public support or assistance, as compared to just 4% in 1990. So much for the persistent, but popular mythology that the poor constitute a huge drain on public coffers. (See Roy Appleton, "As prosperity in area grew, so did poverty," The Dallas Morning News, page 1A, Sunday, May 26, 2002.)
As you read this analysis, remember it is based on data now two years old and that it was collected prior to the recent economic downturn and the horrific events of September 11, 2001. You can count on the fact that for low-income families in Dallas life is not better than this picture, but worse. Add to this the fact that the census process tends to underreport facts of life at the bottom of the economic ladder and the picture grows even more grim.
Our experience at Central Dallas Ministries confirms the reality reported. Working families do not earn enough to provide for their families. Every serious challenge facing our community has a link to the story of poverty. Public education, public health, workforce housing, fair and livable wages, crime and the courts, childcare, transportation. . .the list is familiar. The fact that poverty in Dallas grew significantly at a time of unprecedented economic expansion is cause for concern.
How should we be responding as a community? Any answer will depend largely on what kind of community we desire and decide to become. Assuming for a moment that Dallas desires to become a community of fairness, justice, opportunity and peace, the following factors will be essential to achieving the goal.
The statistics challenge us. How will we respond?
- Public Sector Leadership. Dallas needs a new breed of courageous public leaders determined to establish and implement fair, comprehensive public policy strategies resulting in quantifiable changes in the quality of life in our community among the working poor. Early childhood education, livable wages, public health issues and affordable workforce housing development should place near the top of the priority list. Whatever public response is required to achieve the quality of life desired, Dallas needs leaders who are courageous enough to make and sell their case to citizens.
- Churches That Remember God's Heart. Dallas is among the most churched cities in the world. Drive through any part of town. A church sits on almost every corner it seems. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals God's concern for the poor, the alien, the homeless, the fatherless and the oppressed. Most current public policy leaders in Dallas sit in church on Sunday. Pastors and other church leaders should press and press again the key link between professed faith and practical action on behalf of the poor in the public sector. More budget dollars should be devoted to the issues of poverty and less to internal needs of the churches. What might be the result if churches from every part of the city decided to commit equal resources to the challenge of lifting families out of the pit of poverty as to caring for the spiritual and social needs of their own members? Rather than functioning as spiritual country clubs for the well-off, churches should transform themselves into outposts of hope and gatherings of advocates for the less fortunate.
- Neighbors Who Respond to Neighbors to Create Genuine Community. Significant changes occur when people get to know one another. Actually, everyone in Dallas is rich and poor, just in different ways. As I've lived and worked among people who have little income, I have discovered that everyone has wealth of some kind. If not financially wealthy, poor folks exhibit amazing relational, creative and social wealth. In much the same way, I've noticed that rich folks have deep needs of their own. When people get together, get acquainted and build friendships as neighbors in the same community, things change. New, individual human connections can be forged in Dallas. The non-profit community and the church can help with forming these new linkages.
The answer we give with our actions, our resources and our influence will determine in large measure the kind of community and city we create and pass along to our children and grandchildren. These are serious times.
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